The FAFSA rundown

January 5, 2011 by Kenneth O'Connor

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If you plan to attend college then you need to get your Free Application for Federal Student Aid filed to confirm financial aid eligibility.

Commonly known as FAFSA, this application is used to determine your eligibility for need based funding sources for college.

This includes programs like the Pell Grant, federal student loans, some state grants and money from the school itself.

As of January 1 the new FAFSA has been made available for anyone to file. Here is a quick rundown on what to expect.

The place to file the FAFSA is on the government website: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/

As the name says, it is FREE. Therefore you do not need to pay a fee in order to file the FAFSA. There are FAFSA filing services available, but they will cost additional money. FAFSA filing services are a convenience, but when you realize that filing a FAFSA is not so complicated you would probably not want to pay any additional fees for it.

First things first – When completing the FAFSA, make sure your name, social security number and birth date are accurate! These are the most basic pieces of information, but every year thousands of students submit incorrect data slowing down their FAFSA filing process.

You will be asked to establish a PIN. This is the Personal Identification Number required to file the FAFSA and authenticate your e-signature. In order to get your PIN go here: http://www.pin.ed.gov/PINWebApp/pinindex.jsp

The FAFSA will ask questions about household income and assets, so have your tax return ready to check over your numbers. If you are just finishing highschool and living with parents, you will need their tax information to document household income. The 2013-2014 FAFSA requires the 2012 tax return information.

When filing the FAFSA, you will list up to 10 schools that you want this information forwarded to for review. On the FAFSA website, there is a comprehensive list of all the schools available so that you can easily choose and list them.

When the school receives the FAFSA information, they also check their admissions records to build a database file on you. If you have not yet been admitted to a school you have sent FAFSA information to, your information will sit at the school until an official decision is made.

Once admitted, the school will use the financial aid info to determine eligibility. The financial aid office focuses on three main funding areas. First, they determine all federal funding eligibility. Second, they confirm if the student is eligible for any state grant funding. Third, they award need based grants originated from the school itself. This accounts for a substantial amount of student funding for millions of students across the nation.

When going through the admissions process, students may be offered merit based scholarships considering academic record, extra-curricular activities, sports or other qualities. Merit based scholarships are NOT need based funding, and therefore do not account for FAFSA information when being awarded. The financial aid office coordinates with admissions to make sure that all need based funding available and merit based funding being offered are put on one award letter to be sent to the student.

Timing – Filing the FAFSA early should be a priority because it ensures that maximum funding eligibility is made available. While certain funding sources like federal loans and Pell grants can be made available to students as late as September (or possibly later), other funding sources are not so easily accessible. Individual states follow strict grant request deadlines for timely FAFSA filing, and each college has a limited amount of grants it awards on a first come-first serve basis. My recommendation is to make sure the FAFSA gets filed by Feb 15 in order to retain the best shot at funding.

But my tax return is not ready by February 15! If this is the case, then estimate your numbers as best as possible. If your income from a prior tax year is about the same your new tax return, you could look at the old income tax return to make an educated estimate. When the new tax return is available, use the PIN to log back onto the FAFSA website and make any corrections needed. It is more important to file the FAFSA early with estimated numbers then to file late with numbers accurate to the penny. A late filing could forfeit much funding even if FAFSA determines that the student has high need.

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